by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent
The first month of the war ended along the Western Front with the French and British holding back and beginning to turn the German attempt to swiftly defeat the Entente. In the east, Germany inflicted the first of two crushing defeats on Russian armies that had invaded Prussia. During September, the fronts, in Max Hastings’ words (Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War) congealed and would, for four years, oscillate in gains and losses measured in yards or a few miles.
During September, this congealing of the Western Front would take place over the first two weeks:
• September 4 – 10: The First Battle of the Marne stalls then halts the German invasion of France.
• September 9 – 14: Often called The Great Retreat, German forces retreat back to the river Aisne. The retreat results in a major shakeup of the German command, which will be reflected in the headlines.
• September 12 – October 24: First Battle of Aisne followed by the ‘Race to the Sea’, as Entente and German troops sought advantage over each other only to close with the nearly static series of trenches that have come to characterize the war.
The Daily Capital Journal opened the month with a string of headlines reporting the crucial battles taking place in Europe:
GREATEST BATTLE IN HISTORY OF WORLD; 3,000,000 FIGHTING
Belgians Plan To Take Agressive — Cavalry Is Busy
Continues Harassing Tactics and Threatens German Communications Lines
AEROGUNS MOUNTED ON ROOFS AT ANTWERP
As Result of Invasion of Their Country, Are Rabid in Hatred of Germans
BRITISH COMBINE WITH BELGIANS TO HARASS INVADERS
Stories Current That German Communication Lines Are Broken
PROVISIONS GETTING SCARCE AT THE FRONT
Germans Claim to Be Satisfied With Situation, and So Are the French
SAY THEY CAPTURED 70,000 RUSSIANS IN RECENT BATTLE
Berlin Reports Overwhelming Defeat of Three Russian Army Corps
TWO GENERALS AND 300 OFFICERS IN LOT
Berlin Celebrates Sedan Day; Germans claim Successes Everywhere
FIVE MILLION MEN FACE EACH OTHER IN DEADLY COMBAT
Five million men were at one another’s throats today on the Russo-German, Russo-Austrian, Franco-Belgian and Franco-German frontiers.
Three of the five million were engaged in the eastern battle; the western conflict claimed the rest.
It was the goriest struggle the world has seen and it grew more ferocious as it progressed.
Before the German assault, the Franco-British forces were falling back but their line was unbroken.
Two long editorials presented very different views of the war.
“The Present War,” published as an editorial in the 27 August, 1914 edition of the Statesman quotes extensively from an editorial in another paper:
The well-known scholar, Professor John W. Burgess, of Providence, R. I., has contributed to the Springfield Republican a lengthy article on the present war in Europe, in which he reviews the causes which led to the conflict, and then gives what he regards as the probable outcome. Prof. Burgess is a well-known scholar and historian, and before outlining his position he declares his ancestry and the influences under when he was educated to show that he is not unduly biased in the favorable view he takes of Germany’s course.
The editorial effectively sets out the position of the paper. Professor Burgess establishes his neutrality by saying that he is of English stock dating back to 1638, but that has been educated in Germany: “What I possess of higher learning has been won in Germany. I have studied in her famous universities and bear their degrees, and in three of them have occupied the teacher’s chair.” He proceeds to allude to his acquaintance with the Hohenzollern ruling dynasty: “I have known four generations of Hohenzollerns, and, of the three generations now extant, have been brought into rather close contact with members of two of them.” Having established his bona fides, he states that “I am conscious of the impulse to treat each with fairness in any account I may attempt to give of their motives, purposes, and actions.”
The editorial then continues:
Prof. Burgess then traces the events of the years from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the wars in Servia and Bulgaria, in which Russian and Austrian influences and interests were more or less involved, and Russian activities for twenty wears were occupied with the extension of her empire in the Orient. Germany and Austria were delivered for the time being from the great peril of Russian domination in Europe, and enabled to pursue the one of peaceable development and progress, with France nursing her “revenge” for the past, and biding her time. The war between Japan and Russia occurred, in which the latter was worsted and checked in the realization of her Asiatic policy and thrown back upon Europe.
“In time occurred the foul murder of the heir to the Austrian throne and in tracing the ramifications of the treacherous plot the lines were found to run to Belgrade, in Servia, that is to say to Russian influence. Getting no satisfaction from Servia, Austria-Hungary undertook the task of punishing the criminals herself. Then Russia intervened, and asked the German emperor to mediate between Austria-Hungary and Servia. The emperor undertook the task. But while in the midst of it he learned that Russia was mobilizing troops on his own border. He immediately demanded of Russia that this should cease, but without avail or even reply. He protested again with like result. Finally at midnight on the 31st day of July, his ambassador at St. Petersburg laid the demand before the Russian minister of foreign affairs that the Russian mobilization must cease within twelve hours, or otherwise Germany would be obliged to mobilize. The time expired without an explanation or reply from Russia, or without any guarantee or assurance from France that she would remain neutral, which question had been put to France at the same time. Thus, war was on, Germany authorizing the declaration against Russia, which declaration applied, according to the sound principle of international jurisprudence, to all her allies refusing to give guarantee of their neutrality.
Professor Burgess then identifies the adherents to the opposing alliances, alluding to the “rivers of blood that have already flowed,” and suggest that “each one, in view of the account I have given, to settle the question with his own judgment and conscience.” The editorial concludes, quoting again from Professor Burgess:
“Finally, as to the outcome, not much can yet be said. Whether the giant of middle Europe will be able to break the bonds which in the last 10 years have been wound about him and under whose smarting cut he is now writhing, or the fetters will be riveted tighter, cannot easily be foretold.”
Contemplating the consequences of war, Professor Burgess writes that “The triumph of Germany, Austro-Hungary-Bulgaria can never be so complete as to make any changes in the present map of Europe. All that could effect would be the momentary abandonment of the Russian Pan-Slavic program, the relegation to dormancy of the French ‘revenge,’ and the stay of Great Britain’s hand from the destruction of German commerce. On the other hand, the triumph of Great Britain-Russia-France cannot fail to give Russia the mastery of the continent of Europe and restore Great Britain to her sovereignty over the seas. These two great powers, who now already between them possess almost the half of the whole world, would then, indeed control the destinies of the earth.”
The thrust of his editorial encourages American neutrality:
Well may we draw back in dismay before such a consummation. The ‘rattle of the saber’ would then be music to our ears in comparison with the crack of the Cossack’s knout and the clanking of Siberian chains, while the burden of taxation which we would be obliged to suffer in order to create and maintain the vast navy and army necessary for the defense of our territory and commerce throughout the world against these gigantic powers with their oriental ally, Japan, would sap our wealth, endanger our prosperity and threaten the very existence of republican institutions.
In conclusion, he writes:
“This is no time for shallow thought or flippant speech. In a public sense it is the most serious moment of our lives. Let us not be swayed in our judgment by prejudice or minor considerations. Men and women like ourselves are suffering and dying for what they believe to be the right, and the world is in tears. Let us wait and watch patiently and hope sincerely that all this agony is a great labor-pain of history and that there shall be born through it a new era of prosperity, happiness and righteousness for all mankind.”
It did not take long for a reader, probably put off by the reference to “shallow thought or flippant speech,” to present a hard hitting rebuttal. The Oregon Statesman published a long letter from a writer identified only as “A. D. F.” The writer objects to the inference that the paper supported the view of the war set out earlier. The writer rebuts the editorial. Excerpts from the letter set out the writer’s view of the origins of the war:
In the issue of The Statesman of the 27th instant appeared an editorial under the caption “The Present war” which I feel ought not to be allowed to pass without a protest. While the editorial presents the views of Prof. Burgess of Providence, yet the fact that it was given position as the leading editorial on Thursday, presupposes that The Statesman approves its argument.
The reasons for the protest are two. First, because of its advocacy of the German-Austrian alliance is predicated on such a flat denial of fact as to amount to deliberate untruths. The denial of fact occurs in the following statement:
“Getting no satisfaction from Servia for the assassination of the Austrian crown prince, Austria undertook the task of punishing the criminals herself.”
In other words Austria went to war because Servia refused to punish those who instigated the assassination. That is a flat falsehood.
. . . .Servia, in order to avoid war, replied by a most abject submission agreeing to every condition but one, and even that one she did not refuse compliance with, but offered to submit it to the Hague tribunal. That one condition was, that Servian officers should be tried by Austrian officers sitting as judges. To comply with that condition was equivalent to surrendering her sovereignty over her own courts and people, but even this humiliation she was willing to submit to, if the Hague tribunal said she had so wronged Austria as to give Austria a right to demand it.
What was the Austrian reply to this abject submission? It was an immediate declaration of war and a bombardment of Servia’s capital, Belgrade.
A. D. F.’s analysis is correct. Austria carefully crafted her ultimatum to insure that it would be rejected. The Dual Monarchy, for its own internal and external reasons, thought that war was necessary. The rebuttal compares Professor Burgess’ recitation of recent history with the facts that he lays out: “[W]hen he comes to a statement of facts as to what occurred only a short month ago, he makes an assertion that can hardly be characterized as less than a deliberate falsehood.”
The writer proceeds to his second charge, relating to Belgium. “Burgess,” he writes, “classes Belgium as among Germany’s enemies, [and] he deliberately ignores and suppresses the fact that Belgium never in any way whatsoever did anything to incur the enmity of Germany, but that Germany’s attack on her has been a deliberate and unprovoked violation of Belgian independence, with a deliberate violation of Germany’s own oath and treaty by which she guaranteed Belgium’s neutrality in time of war. There is absolutely no excuse whatever for Germany’s invasion of Belgium.”
Again, the letter writer is correct. Great Britain would have been hard pressed to justify going to war against Germany had Germany not violated Belgian neutrality. With respect to France, the writer does not address Germany’s demand that France remain neutral – and guarantee that neutrality by surrendering fortresses along her frontier.